The era of ‘football crisis’ arguably peaked between 2013 and 2017. In 2013 League of Denial was published, shedding light on years of misinformation and dissembling by the NFL about the risk of concussion in football. By 2017, the league had been dragged into a culture war, with players protesting against police brutality and racism by kneeling during the national anthem and conservatives threatening to boycott the sport in protest.
Easterbrook’s book, also published in 2013, predates the kneeling crisis but it considers many other issues that still confront the sport today. The former author of ESPN’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback column considers concussion as well as college football’s exploitation of its players and the football talent conveyer belt that traps children at too young an age. He views these issues from a strong moral perspective, trying to ensure that those in the weakest position are not being exploited.
He is scathing in his criticism of college coaches and the NCAA in particular. For example, college players who commit minor violations, such as allowing someone to buy them a meal, often receive punishments than can ruin their education and their chances at a football career. College coaches who break the rules, meanwhile, will typically see their university punished, not them, so they can take another job and leave the punishment with their old employer.
Easterbrook addresses the NFL’s attempts to position itself a non-profit enterprise, despite being the world’s most profitable sports league. (The position is that the teams are massively profitable but the NFL is just a non-profit administrative body.) This is particularly egregious in the way NFL teams get money from taxpayers to build their stadiums, often by threatening to leave town if they aren’t given what they want.
For the most part Easterbrook’s points are well-argued, particularly his take on why paying college players isn’t a good way to end their exploitation. While it is true that college football brings in vast revenues and coaches are highly paid, paying the players would only benefit a small group of top players. Most players wouldn’t get paid very much and would still leave college without making it to the NFL. The real problem, says Easterbrook, is the number of players who leave college without a degree. This is less of a problem for the NFL stars but leaves those who don’t make the big time virtually empty-handed.
If the college was incentivised to improve academic performance for football players then more of them would leave with better career prospects – and improved lifetime earnings that would outweigh anything they could have made as college players. If national rankings took account of graduation rates, for example, then coaches would pretty quickly ensure that the players were paying attention in class.
At times Easterbrook’s arguments stumble through lack of evidence. At once point, for example, he suggests that women outperform men in college because of “video game addiction among teen boys”. Easterbrook offers no supporting evidence. There isn’t much evidence he could offer. Something called “gaming disorder” exists, though it’s not the same as an addiction and psychiatrists disagree over its precise definition. Furthermore it affects a small group – three percent of gamers (not the population as a whole). If Easterbrook thinks it has a significant effect then he needs to provide some justification.
There are a few instances like this, where Easterbrook throws in an unsupported assertion, giving the impression that some of his arguments are based on prejudices or assumptions. The book also has a few errors. Easterbrook writes, for example, that the 1968 “Heidi Game” between the Jets and the Raiders was played “in the bygone era when just one NFL game was aired weekly”. That might be true but in 1968 the Jets and the Raiders played in the AFL, not the NFL.
Easterbrook’s style can irritate as well. He loves to use repetition and does so frequently. What starts as a neat rhetorical flourish soon gives the impression that he’s trying to pad his word count.
Despite those frustrations, I found that Easterbrook’s arguments were typically convincing and almost always thought provoking. Many of his proposed solutions showed careful thought, too.
The ‘football crisis’ headlines have diminished since 2017 but the sport certainly appears to be in a decline. Super Bowl viewing figures have declined by 14 million since their peak in 2015, though they are still higher than at any time since 2010. Fewer children are playing tackle football too, which will eventually affect the pipeline of talent coming to the NFL. There’s no reason why the decline should be terminal – and books like this one offer a good template for how to ensure that it is not.
King of Sports remains very relevant.